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Jennifer Cameron-Smith "Expect the Unexpected" (ACT, Australia)

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Near the Hope
Near the Hope
Prix : CDN$ 9.99

4.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘You have an accent now, soul.’, April 5 2014
This review is from: Near the Hope (Kindle Edition)
In 1909, Ruth Adele (‘Dellie’) Standard has to make a choice. She’s torn between a promise she made to her mother to leave Barbados, and her loyalty to her younger brothers and sisters. Dellie is torn between the unknown – the promise of a better life in America, and the known - the hard work associated with the sugar cane crop. Dellie, already unsettled by her mother’s death and the fact that her boyfriend Pendril Stoute is planning to go to sea, has a horrifying encounter with the master of the sugar plantation on which her family are tenants. Dellie , hoping to find employment as a seamstress, packs her sewing basket and follows her sister Lillian to Brooklyn, New York.

Life in New York is not easy. Dellie is made welcome by Lillian and her husband, Coleridge, and their friend Winnie, but their landlady Mrs Cumberbatch is difficult. Initially, Dellie has difficulty finding work, and is made very aware of inequality in America but eventually she finds her own way. Along the way, despite never forgetting Pendril Stoute, Dellie marries Owen Gibson, an African American Pullman porter with his own dreams of advancement. It seems to be a marriage of convenience for Dellie rather than a love match. What does the future hold for Dellie and Owen? Can they achieve their dreams? Will she ever see Pendril again?

In this, her debut novel, Ms Carey reconstructs her grandmother’s life, bringing both her hardships and dreams to life. Early twentieth century history provides the structure, memories of her grandmother and her grandmother’s precious possessions (letters and treasures kept in an old black leather handbag) provide the personal dimension and connection to Dellie’s world.
I enjoyed this novel, felt drawn into Dellie’s world with its joys, hardships, tragedies and setbacks, and kept hoping for Dellie to find lasting happiness. There is more to Dellie’s story, and I hope that Ms Carey writes it for us. It’s a reminder of recent history, of earlier waves of migration, of discrimination and hardships suffered in search of hope.

‘Not all of what I have written is factual. But all of it is true.’

Note: I was offered, and accepted, a copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

All I Know: A memoir of love, loss and life
All I Know: A memoir of love, loss and life
Prix : CDN$ 7.99

5.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘This is a story about life and death, a memoir based on a part of my history about which I never imagined writing. ‘, April 3 2014
In this memoir, Mary Coustas takes us on a journey through three significant deaths that have shaped her life. This memoir incorporates Mary’s memories of those who died and celebrates the lives of those who have been part of her life’s journey so far.

‘But loss has driven me to find answers in what remains, to airlift myself to a place that serves me better than helplessness and misery. To reach out. This is my love letter to what lives on beyond the devastation.’

Mary’s journey is at times heartbreaking, but it is also filled with observation, gentle humour and is ultimately uplifting. While losses are acknowledged and remembered, the future holds its own promise. Mary recounts her childhood in Collingwood and Doncaster, knowing that her beloved father had already suffered heart attacks and could die at any time. And when he did die, she missed him terribly.

‘The death of my father had left a void that hadn’t been filled by the birth of anything new.’

Mary writes of her choice to be an actor, of the success of her character Effie in ‘Acropolis Now’, of personal expectations, of visiting her maternal grandmother in Greece with her mother. There’s a beautiful scene with her grandmother and mother, and a growing sense of the importance of family connections and heritage. By the time that she dies, her grandmother has lived in the same house for over seventy years. She may not have travelled much in any physical sense, but her influence is enormous.

‘Letting go is an even bigger sign of love than begging for more when time won’t allow it.’

But the main focus of Mary’s memoir is on her meeting, then in 2005 marrying, George Betsis, and six weeks later discovering that she is infertile. Much of the remainder of the memoir talks of the challenges of undergoing IVF treatment, of disappointment followed by pregnancy, of the difficulties of that pregnancy and the stillbirth of her daughter, Stevie, and of the support of family and friends.

‘I know that death is only ever a breath away and having witnessed that myself has only awakened me to living more fully.’

It’s important to me to mention that since writing this book Mary and George have become parents: their daughter Jamie was born on 28 November 2013. I knew this when I read the book, but I had little idea of the difficulties Mary and George had encountered along the way.

This book made me laugh, and cry, and I would recommend it to anyone interested either in Mary Coustas specifically, or IVF experiences and life more generally.

‘Fantasy comes with a very thin façade that disappointment often hides behind.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Patchwork, Please!: Colorful Zakka Projects to Stitch and Give
Patchwork, Please!: Colorful Zakka Projects to Stitch and Give
by Ayumi Takahashi
Edition: Paperback
Prix : CDN$ 15.99
44 used & new from CDN$ 10.07

5.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘Colorful Zakka projects to stitch and give.’, March 27 2014
‘Zakka, which translates to “many things”, refers to objects that improve your home, life or appearance.’ This book contains nineteen small patchwork projects, things that can be made from scraps of fabric - those tempting, gorgeous small pieces of fabric that have too much potential to discard - and assorted fat quarters. I was drawn to the book by the cute pincushions on the cover, but there are at least four other projects I’d like to make.

In a very helpful, cheerful chapter on tools and materials, the author advises that only a basic sewing machine is required. All you really need is a machine that can do straight stitch with an adjustable stitch length, and a zigzag stitch. A walking foot for quilting will be handy (although I suspect a number of quilters would like to do some of these projects by hand). The other items – including a rotary cutter and mat – would be part of any patch worker or quilter’s inventory of supplies.

There’s a wonderful chapter on techniques, and paper-piecing is well explained. There are diagrams and templates for the applique and quilt pieces, and the projects detail the order of assembly. A possible drawback for some may be the need to enlarge the templates –especially if you don’t have easy access to a copier.

Many of these projects would appeal to those new to patchwork and quilting, and would be a great way to practice cutting and piecing skills.

I’ve fallen in love with the ‘You’ve Got Mail Wall Pocket’ (a wall hanging measuring 52 by 70 cm) and the ‘Swedish Bloom-Time Lap Quilt’, while the ‘Yum Yum Apple Bib’ and the ‘Prettified Pincushion’ would make great presents. Hmm. Where to start? I’ll let my fabric decide.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Almost Snow White
Almost Snow White
by Jeffrey Blount
Edition: Paperback
Prix : CDN$ 13.53
13 used & new from CDN$ 6.39

4.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘You got to play the game with the uniform God done give you.’, March 27 2014
This review is from: Almost Snow White (Paperback)
In 1946 Precious Anne Sprately is a young woman isolated within the black community in which she lives in Virginia. Precious is a child born of rape, a mulatto in a community in which blacks and whites live separate lives. Precious is mostly unwanted and unloved: her mother pays her little attention, her mother’s husband can’t stand looking at her, and the black community taunts her because of her lighter coloured skin. When her brother Dred, her only ally, is found hanging from a tree, Precious looks for a way to escape.

‘At all costs, she had to feel free.’

Precious decides to take advantage of her lighter coloured skin, and moves to a distant town where she passes as a white woman. Here, while fitting into the white community, Precious learns how badly African Americans are treated. Here, Precious learns conclusively that there are those who are oppressed, and those that do the oppressing. Can Precious have her own safe and happy place in the world? Is it possible?

‘Desolate, angry Negro people who sat there pondering everything and nothing at the same time.’

I read this book quickly, hoping that Precious could find happiness and anxious to see how she would live her life. I was drawn in by the story, and wanted more – until almost the end of the story. I was thrown out of the story part way through Chapter 12, angered by a choice Precious made. And, while I am still angered by Precious’s choice, the story itself seems stronger as a consequence. There were no easy choices in the world of this novel, and certainly no choices without consequences.
This novel made me think, about the inequities of life where the colour of a person’s skin (or some other racial characteristic) defines the options people have and the choices they can make. It made me wonder how much, really, the world has changed since 1946.

Note: I was offered, and accepted, a copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Sunne In Splendour: A Novel of Richard III
The Sunne In Splendour: A Novel of Richard III
by Sharon Kay Penman
Edition: Paperback
Prix : CDN$ 15.67
35 used & new from CDN$ 3.84

5.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘Loyaulté me lie!’, March 4 2014
The Sunne in Splendour is an intensely human, political story about two of the Yorkist kings of England: Edward IV and his frequently maligned younger brother Richard III. The title refers to Edward’s emblem, which he adopted after the battle of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461. The novel begins in 1459 when Edward is 17 and Richard is 7, a year of particularly vicious fighting in the Wars of the Roses, fought between the Lancastrian and Yorkist descendants of Edward III. The Lancastrian Henry VI, whether ill or feeble-minded, had essentially ceded power to his detested French wife, Margaret of Anjou.

Edward is the darling of the crowds: tall and handsome, instinctively gracious. His wife – Elizabeth Woodville – may have been beautiful, but her large, ambitious family undermined the stability of Edward’s government. And Edward’s death at an early age is a tragedy: his son (Edward V) is a minor. But how does Richard move from being Edward’s official guardian to being the king?
Richard is the centre of this novel, and is portrayed by Ms Penman as caring, loyal and thoughtful. Richard adores his elder brother, and from the time he accepted responsibility for something Edward did when Richard was aged 7, he serves Edward’s interests to the best of his ability. His marriage to Anne Neville is portrayed as a love match, and it’s very difficult to imagine this Richard as being guilty of the murders of his nephews in the Tower.

This was the first novel I read (for the first time back in the 1980s) that portrayed Richard III as other than a child murdering monster who murdered his nephew and usurped his throne. How accurate was the account given by Sir Thomas More, or Richard’s characterisation by Shakespeare?

Ms Penman paints a very different picture of Richard III, an account that is not inconsistent with existing historical documents. Richard loyally served Edward for 12 years and a number of his boyhood friends served with him – and died – at Bosworth in 1485.

I enjoyed rereading this novel. Ms Penman brings these historical figures to life, and I much prefer her portrayal of Richard III to Shakespeare’s or Sir Thomas More’s. This is a long novel, but well worth reading.

‘While imagination is the heart of any novel, historical fiction needs a strong factual foundation, especially a novel revolving around a man as controversial as Richard III.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Richard III: The Maligned King
Richard III: The Maligned King
by Annette Carson
Edition: Paperback
20 used & new from CDN$ 12.82

5.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘This book is not a biography of Richard III.’, March 2 2014
In this book, Annette Carson sets out to examine the events and circumstances of Richard’s life, rather than the man himself. She also focusses on the main chroniclers who have shaped public perceptions of Richard over the past 500 years: the anonymous chronicler of the Abbey of Crowland, Dominic Mancini, Polydore Vergil and Sir Thomas More.

In an analytical and methodical approach, Ms Carson examines some of the most contentious events and people - including the rise of the Woodvilles, the marriage pre-contract, the unexpected death of Edward IV, the interception of Edward V at Stony Stratford, and Elizabeth Woodville’s retreat into sanctuary. Ms Carson also examines the Titulus Regius, the role of Harry Stafford ( the Duke of Buckingham), the disappearance of the Princes and the October Rebellion of 1483. And while analysing these events, Ms Carson pays particular attention to how each one was interpreted and presented by each of the main chroniclers.

While no firm conclusions can be reached based on the few known objective facts, I found Ms Carson’s approach logical and reasonable. Personally, I’ve always been attracted to either the Duke of Buckingham or Henry VII as being the most likely villains. But I like even better the possibility that the boys were removed from the Tower and kept safe. By questioning the objectivity of the main chroniclers, and examining a range of possibilities, Ms Carson has raised a number of questions for those of us fascinated by Richard III and the Princes in the Tower to consider further. It is definitely true that certain key events have more than one possible interpretation.

‘In the end we cannot be sure of the truth about the princes’ fate and honesty demands that we admit as much.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

by Emma Donoghue
Edition: Hardcover
44 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘We’re each of us born into a place on this earth. We must make the best of it.’, Feb. 28 2014
This review is from: Slammerkin (Hardcover)
Mary Saunders, born in 1748 into Hogarth's working class-London, yearns for a better life. At the age of fourteen, she loses her virginity in return for a shiny red ribbon. A few months later, pregnant, Mary is turned out of the house by her mother. Shortly afterwards, Doll Higgins, a sharp-tongued young prostitute, takes Mary under her wing and teaches her how to survive on the rough streets of London's red light district. Mary relishes the liberty her prostitution provides and her ability to acquire colourful clothes, while readers wince at the awfulness of the world she inhabits with its dirt and disease, and wonder how long Mary can survive in this world. Mary's call of `fourteen and clean' can only be temporary, surely.

`Slammerkin. A loose dress for a loose woman.'

Following a period in the Magdalen (a hospital that looks after prostitutes who claim they are willing to repent), Mary needs to flee London for the country. She travels to Monmouth, where her parents once lived. There, in service to Mrs Jones (her mother's friend), she works as a dressmaker's assistant. Mary has a natural skill with the needle, and quickly becomes indispensable to Mrs Jones. But Mary is restless; she still desires a different life and can see herself wearing the sort of finery that she has to labour over for others. And this restlessness proves tragic.

`A whore's life was made up of fragments of other people's.'

This is a black and bleak story, inspired by a murder that took place in the Welsh Borders in September 1763. I didn't so much enjoy this novel as get tangled up in it. Few facts have survived about the real Mary Saunders, but Emma Donghue's imagined Mary seems very real for much of the novel. Hogarthian London is uncomfortable: the brutality, poverty and pain is distressing. And Monmouth? If only Mary could have settled. If only.

`Clothes outlived people, she knew that.'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Dinner
The Dinner
by Herman Koch
Edition: Paperback
Prix : CDN$ 11.55
47 used & new from CDN$ 5.04

4.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘As long as nothing happens, nothing is happening.’, Feb. 27 2014
This review is from: The Dinner (Paperback)
Paul Lohman and his wife Claire are waiting at the upmarket restaurant, selected by Paul’s brother Serge, for Serge and his wife Babette to arrive. While he waits, Paul complains about the restaurant, and about any number of things that seem to irritate him. Serge himself irritates Paul: he’s likely to be the next prime minister of Holland, but Paul chooses to think (and remember) the worst of him. Yes, in Paul’s view, Serge only pretends to be an ordinary person (by dropping into the ‘ordinary-people café preferred by Paul and Claire, and surely their decision to adopt a boy from Burkina Faso was calculated? Hmm.

‘Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

The two couples are meeting over this dinner to discuss some urgent family business. Paul and Claire’s son, Michel, and Serge and Babette’s son, Rick, have got themselves into some serious trouble. We learn, as the novel progresses, to question what Paul knows and sees, and to wonder just how reliable he might be as a narrator. And if you can’t trust the narrator, who can you trust?

The novel is presented in parts, like courses in a meal: ‘Appetiser’, ‘’Main Course’, ‘Dessert’ and ‘Digestive’. This technique is both effective and misleading: the structure is simultaneously familiar in its orderliness but detached from the seriousness of the discussion.

Mr Koch creates a disturbing world within this novel. My perspective and perceptions of the story and particularly of Paul were altered as the story unfolded. There is more to Paul than would seem apparent initially. I ended up feeling ambivalent about the story: I admired the way in which it was written but not the world or most of the people it represented.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Galileo's Daughter
Galileo's Daughter
by Dava Sobel
Edition: Paperback
Prix : CDN$ 14.08
38 used & new from CDN$ 2.65

4.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘There was only one trial of Galileo, and yet it seems there were a thousand –‘, Feb. 14 2014
This review is from: Galileo's Daughter (Paperback)
In 1633, the astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) was tried and convicted of heresy by the Holy Office of the Inquisition for the crime of having defended the idea that the sun is the centre of the universe around which the earth and planets revolve. Galileo was punished by being placed under house arrest and ordered to publicly affirm his belief in the earth-centred universe. Galileo’s story is the stuff of legend. And yet, there are few references to the support given to Galileo by Suor Maria Celeste, a member of the order of Poor Clares in the Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri. Born Virginia Galilei in 1600, she is the eldest of Galileo’s three illegitimate children and lived within the cloistered walls of San Matteo from 1613 until her death in 1634.

In Galileo’s Daughter, Ms Sobel interweaves the stories of father and daughter. Suor Maria Celeste’s letters to Galileo have survived; his to her have not. Ms Sobel writes that his letters were probably destroyed by the Convent after her death:

‘In this fashion, the correspondence between father and daughter was long ago reduced to a monologue.’

The lives of father and daughter could not be in more stark contrast: she lived within the confines of a convent; much of his life was lived very publicly through his teaching, research and invention. We know about Galileo’s public life, but in this book we learn of domestic concerns, of his daughter’s preparation of pills and potions for his illness, of her mending and sewing for him and of preparing food for him. We learn as well that Galileo was a generous benefactor of the Convent, and that Suor Maria Celeste served as an apothecary and was sought out by the abbesses to write important letters.

Although the title of the book is ’Galileo’s Daughter’ and the focus is on Suor Maria Celeste, it is Galileo’s life that occupies centre stage. Suor Maria Celeste’s letters provide another and different insight into Galileo’s life as well as raising quite a few questions about the treatment of daughters (especially illegitimate daughters in the 17th century). I admit that my primary focus was on Galileo, but I found myself liking Suor Maria Celeste and wanting to know more about her. This book brings them both to life.

‘Thus, to imagine an infinite universe was merely to grant almighty God his proper due.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The King's Touch
The King's Touch
Offered by Hachette Book Group Digital, Inc.
Prix : CDN$ 11.99

4.0 étoiles sur 5 ‘It is a common enough error to suppose ourselves at the centre of the world.’, Feb. 12 2014
This review is from: The King's Touch (Kindle Edition)
This novel presents as a first person biography, written by Jemmy, also known as James Crofts, who became James Scott, Duke of Monmouth. James is the illegitimate son of Charles II, and he writes of his complicated relationship with his father.

James was born in 1649 to Lucy Walter in Rotterdam, the same year as Charles I was executed. His early life with his mother and half sister Mary was marked by poverty and by a succession of men through Lucy's life as she looked for security. Prince Charles removed Jemmy from his mother, and sent him to live with Lord Crofts in Paris. Here, he also spent time with his grandmother, Charles I's widow, Henrietta Maria and with his aunt, Henrietta Anne (`Minette').

In 1660, when Jemmy was 11, Charles II was restored to the English throne. As a consequence, Jemmy's life changed immeasurably. In 1662 Jemmy is brought to England to become part of the court, but he is never able to move past his early hardship and insecurity. Jemmy wants very much to believe his mother's claim that his parents entered into a secret marriage, and eventually to see himself as his father's heir.

In 1663, aged 14, Jemmy was married to Anna Scott, aged 12, the Duchess of Buccleuch. In a very short period of time, Jemmy Crofts becomes James Scott, Duke of Buccleuch and Duke of Monmouth. Having risen so far, Jemmy expects even more and his insecurity makes him vulnerable - especially to those who would seek to exclude Charles II's brother, the Catholic James, Duke of York from the succession.

I enjoyed Jude Morgan's portrayal of Charles II, of his mistresses Nell Gwyn and Barbara Castlemaine, of his queen Catherine of Braganza, and his mother Henrietta Maria. I wished that Monmouth was less impulsive and headstrong, more secure and sensible. Jude Morgan brings the period of the Restoration court to life: with its tragedies (the Plague, the Great Fire of London, the Dutch Wars), excesses (including the many mistresses of Charles II, and secret deals with France. Despite the detailed view given by Jemmy, Charles II remains elusive. Our view of him through Jemmy's eyes is never complete and while Charles is willing to pardon Jemmy, he is never going to appoint him as his heir.

Alas, Jemmy will never be satisfied with anything less.

`It has been said that ill luck is a ship belonging to the Stuart family: always it comes back to them.'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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